Imagine for a second that, at the height of the Cold War, someone had told you of a future in which the US faced no great armed power (not one) and at most a few thousand terrorists scattered across the planet, as well as modestly armed minority insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine that person making this prediction as well: in budget and size, the National Security Complex of that moment would put its Cold War predecessor in the shade.
Without a doubt, you would have dismissed him as a madman. If someone had proposed such a future to those running the Cold War back then, they would have called it victory. And yet that’s exactly our reality today, while victory itself has become the rarest of vintages, no longer stocked anywhere in our American world.
The dimensions of the National Security Complex now beggar the imagination. In fact, everything about it should make it the global yardstick for “too big to fail”. The Pentagon budget is, for instance, about 50 per cent higher today than the Cold War average and accounts for nearly half of all military expenditures globally. And yet it has kept right on growing; and if bailed-out bankers continue to take home their bonuses as thanks for practically sinking the country, top Pentagon types continue to take home their golden pensions with future revolving-door opportunities in the military-industrial complex always available.
If you really want to grasp the enormity of the National Security Complex, just consider this stat: today, 4.2 million federal workers and employees of private contractors have security clearances – about, that is, the population of New Zealand or Lebanon.
Your taxes regularly bail out the Complex. You ensure its wellbeing, and no one even bothers to give you an explanation. In 2008, economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes did the numbers and offered a “conservative” estimate of the ultimate costs of the Iraq War: $3tn. Now that Washington increasingly looks like it is giving up hope of keeping any significant number of troops stationed in Iraq, you might ask just what that phenomenal sum bought Americans. But no answer will be forthcoming. On Iraq, mum’s the word, nor will anyone in Washington be held accountable.
Oh, and don’t bother to ask, because no one who matters thinks you need to know. Meanwhile, talking about golden parachutes, the president who took us into Iraq and kept us there is overseeing the creation of a library named after him and by last accounting had already raked in $15m on the lecture circuit at $100,000 to $150,000 a pop; the vice president, who was a key player in the decision to invade and the war that followed, took home more than $2m for his bestselling memoir; the national security adviser, who offered her keenest advice to the president on the subject of Iraq, garnered a guaranteed $2.5m on a three-book contract and now charges up to $150,000 an appearance for speaking engagements, while settling into posts at Stanford University and the Hoover Institute; and the secretary of state who went to the UN to infamously defend the coming invasion with a pack of lies has pulled in a similar $150,000 ($5,000 a minute) for his lectures – and those are just the first few names on a far longer list.
By the way, in case you think it’s over in Iraq, think again. Washington’s stimulus bill for that country is still in effect. Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren writes at the Huffington Post that the State Department is now asking Congress for $5bn over five years to create jobs for police officers – Iraqi police officers, that is.
When a country spends “more on defence than the next 17 top-spending countries combined” and can’t win a war, you should know that something’s wrong, and that “too big” and “fail” do stand in some relation to each other. Washington, however, doesn’t.
The only problem: unless you’re inside that Complex or involved in making weapons or other equipment for it, it’s not your payday, just your payout. You, the taxpayer, bailed out AIG, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and a host of other tottering financial firms. You saved their skins and their bonuses (and got nothing in return). The only bright spot: those were one-time, two-time, or three-time deals.
The Complex is forever (at least as its managers see it). Despite modest rumblings in Washington about the Pentagon and intelligence budgets and the deficit, it’s not just considered too big to fail, but generally too big to question, and too deeply embedded to think much about.
No wonder TARPing war has become a Washington pastime.